Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) calls from Spartanburg, S.C., heavy of mind, thinking about the water.
His state is in the middle of a 1,000-year flood. Seven people have drowned, and unearthed caskets are floating down the street. In Columbia, where his daughter studies, there is no drinking water. Classes are cancelled. Another dam is about to break.
Gowdy returned to a man-made disaster of sorts in Washington on Tuesday, but the day before, there seemed like nobody to talk to. The two friends he’d normally call are competing to be House speaker. He won’t talk to them until Friday, he says, after one of them is selected by the GOP conference. Unfortunately, the likely winner made a comment on TV that could ruin Gowdy’s year, and things are not yet back to normal.
For the moment, Gowdy is alone, watching missed calls pile up.
“I don’t take their calls,” he said in a lengthy interview on Monday, referring to leadership candidates seeking support. “I don’t return them. You know when people say, ‘Which of your kids do you love more?’ Well, which of your friends do you like more? Last time I looked, all of the people in the race I consider to be friends.”
The relationship that needs time now is with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who went on Fox News last week and credited the House Benghazi investigation with lowering Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. The comment arrived three weeks before the former secretary of state is slated to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Gowdy, who leads the Benghazi panel, said he’s spent a year defending his work from criticism that it’s political. Now he’s in the middle of a firestorm, and his friend is partly to blame.
“I heard from him at 6 a.m. the next morning,” said Gowdy, whose name was recently floated for House majority leader. “How many times can somebody apologize? Yes, he’s apologized as many times as a human can apologize. It doesn’t change it. It doesn’t fix it. The only thing you can say is, instead of listening to someone else’s words, why don’t you look at our actions?”
“Kevin is a friend, which makes the disappointment, frankly, even more bitter. If faith tells you to forgive somebody…” Gowdy trails off. “It’s tough,” he says after a moment. “People should go by what we’ve done. How many people have we interviewed? How many of those people have been named Clinton?”
When people tell the story of Clinton, Benghazi and the Republican Congress, Gowdy will be a central figure — maybe a protagonist or antagonist, depending on your point of view. The reality, of course, is blurred. But McCarthy’s comment allowed Democrats to say with new authority what they have argued all along: that the panel is a political tool for Republicans to undermine Clinton. Gowdy says he will strive to correct the record, not only on the left but within his own party, when Clinton comes to before his panel on Oct. 22.
“There were seven Democrats that voted to form the Benghazi Committee, and I have talked to some of the ones who are still in the House because what Kevin said put them in an incredibly bad position,” Gowdy said.” I told them, ‘I want you to tell the people who are criticizing you for taking a chance on us to watch on the 22nd. If they think she’s being treated unfairly they can take it out on you. But that’s not what they are going to see.'”
The pressure on Gowdy last week was acute. Before McCarthy’s comment and his subsequent reversal, colleagues were trying without success to draft Gowdy into the majority leader race. The sudden media ruckus caught him off-guard. He insists he’s not interested in joining leadership, not in any capacity. He is funny, and biting, about the chaos of the present House.
“I don’t have a background in mental health, so I wouldn’t have the right qualifications to lead right now,” he says. Who wants you to be in leadership? “No friend does,” he says.
Gowdy is in his third term: a former prosecutor, product of the 2010 elections, member of the original tea party class. Like many of his classmates, he began his tenure by looking to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as a role model. Now, in the current House environment, Gowdy said Ryan’s lack of interest in running for leadership speaks volumes.
“To me, just speaking as one member, the smartest kid in the class is Paul Ryan,” Gowdy said. “If I had one draft choice and I was starting a new country, I would draft Paul to run it. Not because I agree with him on everything, but because he’s super, super smart. And when someone is super, super smart and is not interested, that tells you something. It tells me a lot.”
Since last week, the South Carolina Republican said he’s been trying to convince colleagues that he really does not want to be promoted, that he just wants to stick with the Benghazi work, come hell or high water.
“Paul told me my first or second week in Congress, ‘I want you to find what you’re good at and do that.’ Which doesn’t sound like it comes from the lips of Wittgenstein or Plato, but I’ve found it to be good advice,” Gowdy said.
“I stood up in front of conference and said, ‘I know what we need in a leader, and I do not have those qualities.’ I don’t know how to tell them any more plainly than that. I don’t have them. I appreciate the fact that some people think I do. But you have to know yourself and have self-awareness,” he said.
“Take this example. At one point, there was a question about whether I should try to get on [the] Financial Services [Committee]. Eric [Cantor] thought I had a shot. Maybe I did. But why would you put a country lawyer on Financial Services? You have to know what you’re good at.”
“I would not give up this committee, despite the fact there have been some dark days recently. I’m sure most political advisers would say, ‘Gowdy, this is a perfect out. You’re going to get banged on with this Benghazi Committee for months. You’ve got an entire presidential machine that is going to make your life miserable. Jump out now and get into leadership.’ But I don’t want to do that.”
Is he saying that being in leadership would be worse than leading the Benghazi Committee, amid all the controversies, all the backlash? Gowdy deadpans.
“It’s close — I’d have to ask my therapist.” Who is that? “Mick Mulvaney,” his fellow Republican from South Carolina. “That’s who I call when I need to ask someone, ‘How bad off am I?’ Mick will take you from having a bad day to being suicidal.”
This is the kind of humor that endears colleagues to Gowdy and makes them trust him, makes them want to call him. He seems pained that Democrats like Reps. Elijah Cummings (Md.) and Adam Schiff (Calif.) say their working relationship on Benghazi has gone south.
“I don’t have a poor relationship with anybody in the House, not a single person,” he says. “I like Adam a lot. I never miss a chance to compliment him when I can. And I get along fabulously well with Elijah Cummings. I’ve never had a cross word with him. I’ve never had a cross word with any of them. You’d be surprised what Democrats tell you privately versus publicly.”
Those Democrats are turning up the heat ahead of Clinton’s hearing, sensing weakness after McCarthy’s about-face. They’re predicting Republicans’ questions will expose their true intentions as political.
“What you’ll see on the 22nd is a very professional, fact-centric, more-than-fair hearing,” Gowdy said. “It’s just getting to the 22nd that’s the hard part.”